Category Archives: Ingredients

Teaching Recipes

Nearly every year, I teach a senior seminar in the English department at the University of Texas, Arlington (near Dallas) that changes thematically each time.  With the recent proliferation of both cookbooks and books about cooking, I decided this spring to try out a class that focused on literature that features recipes as a major component, and, as a kind of juxtaposition to the literature, I also wanted to consider recipes as a literary pursuit.  Students would delve into texts that exhibit literary, lyrical, and aesthetic sensibilities about recipe-writing and recipe-execution, and that mark particular cultural shifts in food praxis and politics. At the same time, students would study how recipe writing calls upon a host of literary and cultural practices.

The literature that we read was primarily contemporary novels, including Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Nicole Mones’s The Last Chinese Chef, though we also read M.F.K. Fisher’s classic work, How to Cook a Wolf.   For the recipe side, we read Hervé This’s Molecular Gastronomy and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. But, as I am an early modernist by training, I also wanted the students to be exposed to earlier recipes to understand how recipes have developed and changed in the last four hundred years.

Here the class intersected with my own research interest in women’s manuscript receipt book writing of sixteenth and seventeenth century England and with my involvement with the newly formed digital humanities group, Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), many of whose members write for this blog.  I was inspired by Lisa Smith’s autumn class, “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe,” who had worked on transcribing Johanna St. John’s recipe book. (See her blog post “An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription,” April 12, 2013.)  I was also working in tandem with Rebecca Laroche, who teaches at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, as we decided that we would have our students transcribe the same seventeenth-century recipe book, so that the text could be double-keyed.  Rebecca and I chose Jane Baber’s receipt book, available in digitized form from the Wellcome Library, because it was short, only twenty-six pages, and in a hand, we thought, that was not too difficult.  Our students would code their transcriptions in XML on the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform, run by the University of Saskatchewan.

With a couple of exceptions, the students in the class were senior English majors so they were used to reading and writing about literature. Reading and transcribing early modern writing, however, was something that they had never encountered before–and the task seemed at first quite daunting.  To teach the skill of transcribing, Rebecca and I had students utilize the online Cambridge handwriting course, which moves progressively through more and more difficult early modern handwriting.  My class met on Thursdays in a computer classroom, and we devoted the class period to transcription.  What I noticed was that students started working collectively on the transcriptions, and such communal learning made all the parties stronger transcribers.

So when it finally came to transcribing Baber’s receipt book, I decided to have them work in groups.  What we all noticed was that the group work allowed everyone a safety net to have the confidence to do difficult work, with as much accuracy as possible. I also learned a lot about transcribing from the students as they experimented with various techniques, such as using a tablet or large T.V. to look at the recipe while writing the transcription on a laptop. Students became tenacious in figuring out what words could be, looking them up in the Oxford English Dictionary or in a Google search.  They also struggled to learn to code in XML and to make everything work correctly on the Textual Communities site.

Throughout the semester, students had to write short, researched analytical commentaries, and in the next few days some students from the class will be posting their discoveries about Jane Baber’s recipes.  I am sure you will enjoy their discoveries, and it is exciting to see such keen interest in these receipt book manuscripts.


Jane Baber 1r                              Jane Baber 6r

Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Compiler and the Countess

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

Last month, Rebecca Laroche (12/03/2013) examined the first recipe in a manuscript owned by Anne Layfielde and dated 1640, housed at the Medical Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  The section of the manuscript compiled by one “Cal: Downing” contains a remarkable number of attributions, many to Elizabeth Downing – a woman who, Rebecca suggested, could be the “Mistress Downing” whose recipes appear in the printed Natura Exenterata: Or Nature Unbowelled (1655).

I’d like to consider another woman whose name appears repeatedly in the Layfielde manuscript as well as in printed medical manuals: the Countess of Exeter.  Seven references to the Countess of Exeter appear in CPP 10a214.  While the manuscript never says so specifically, this is most likely Frances Cecil (1580-1663), who married Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter in 1610.[1]  The Countess’s reputation in matters of health proved weighty enough that she is named in the dedications to a number of early modern printed books, though, curiously, her recipes are not part of those books (and male physicians’ are). Thomas Bonham dedicates The Chyrurgians Closet to the Countess because he finds “amongst men (to me known) none so much affecting this noble Science as I could wish.”[2] Her reputation as a model household manager led Gervase Markham to dedicate the 1623 edition of Country Contentments, or The English Huswife to her; his assertion that the Countess’s endorsement could make his “weak and disable[d]” book “strong in the world” underscores her long-standing reputation as a practitioner of household medicine.[3]  Thus, even though the Countess’s recipes themselves are not included, or at least not credited, in these books, their authors rely on her popular reputation as a medical practitioner to situate their writings.

Downing’s manuscript section calls on the Countess’s authority as well, naming her as a source for recipes for ailments ranging from “looseness of the body” to sudden swellings.  And even more interestingly, the manuscript labels four recipes as “probatum per Countess of Exeter.”  A recipe for “the Ulcer or stone in the bladder” goes so far as to specify that the medicine was “made by Mr Whatton apothecary of Stamford, probatum per Countess Exeter.” This endorsement carries a personal ring, suggesting that the compiler’s contact with the Countess is more immediate than with the apothecary.  The manuscript, as a result, conjures images of the compiler and the Countess in personal conversation about their medical work.

While written testimonials could certainly follow along with well-travelled recipes, the Layfielde manuscript’s many references to the Countess raise tantalizing questions about the compiler’s medical connections.  How closely did the compiler know the Countess?  Did they exchange recipes in person?  If not, how did her recipes end up in the CPP manuscript?  The answers to these tantalizing questions could offer us a greater understanding not just of how recipes travel, but of how manuscript and print worked together to lend practitioners like the Countess a reputation for medical prowess.

[1] Alastair Bellany, ‘Cecil , Frances, countess of Exeter (1580–1663)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [, accessed 23 March 2013]

[2]  Thomas Bonhman, The Chyrurgians Closet (London, 1630).

[3]  Gervase Markham, Country Contentments, or The English Huswife (London, 1623).

This is the third in a series of monthly posts on this topic.

Wot’s fer dinna luv? Yer favrit, stuffed dormouse!

By Thony Christie

The British Museum has a new exhibition on Pompeii and Cambridge classicist and current media star Mary Beard has been doing the rounds of the English press writing entertaining glosses on it. In her piece for The Sun (yes really that Sun!) she mentioned amongst other things that the Romans ate dormice. Now most English people on being informed of this Roman culinary delight automatically think of the common or hazel dormouse (Mucardinus avellanarius) famously seen being stuffed into a teapot by the Hatter and the March Hare at the formers tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Hatter’s Tea Party, John Tenniel. Source: Wikipedia.
Hatter’s Tea Party, John Tenniel. Source: Wikipedia.

Now this creature is about the same size as the common house mouse (Mus musculus) but has somewhat thicker brown fur and a furry tail. Skinned and boned it would provide, at best, a very delicate hors d’oeuvre or amuse-bouche but never a real meal. There are however many different species of dormouse something that most people are not aware of.

Hazel dormouse, (Mucardinus avellanarius). Source: Wikipedia.
Hazel dormouse, (Mucardinus avellanarius). Source: Wikipedia.

Where I live in Southern Germany for example we have lots of Siebenschläfer, literally translated seven sleeper, (Glis glis) which is supposedly so named because it hibernates for seven months of the year. It looks like a small grey squirrel with a grey and white stripped tummy and a very long, very bushy tail that curls up right over its head like a sunshade. They look very cute and cuddly but you shouldn’t try to stroke one as they are very aggressive and you’ll come away with some very nasty bites.

Edible dormouse (Glis glis). Source: Wikipedia.
Edible dormouse (Glis glis). Source: Wikipedia.

The edible dormouse is the domesticated Glis glis, which when fattened can weigh up to 300 grams. The Roman cookbook Apicius, now thought to date from the late 4th or early 5th century, famously contains a recipe for stuffed dormouse, which I reproduce below:

Apicius, De opsoniis et condimentis (Amsterdam: J. Waesbergios), 1709. Frontispiece of the second edition of Martin Lister’s privately printed version of Apicius. Source: Wikipedia.
Apicius, De opsoniis et condimentis (Amsterdam: J. Waesbergios), 1709. Frontispiece of the second edition of Martin Lister’s privately printed version of Apicius. Source: Wikipedia.

Liber VIII: Tetrapus

 IX. Glires

 Glires: glires: isicio porcino, item pulpis ex omni membro glirium, trito cum pipere, nucleis, lasere, liquamine farcies glires, et sutos in tegula positos mittes in furnum aut farsos in clibano coque.

Book 8:

Four-footed beasts

9. Dormice: Dormice: dormice: stuff the dormice with minced pork as well as the flesh from all of the dormouse’s limbs, together with ground pepper, pine nuts, laser and liquamen and place them sewn up on a clay tile in the oven or cook them in a roasting pan.

Liquamen or garum is a fermented fish sauce and almost universal condiment that served roughly the same function in the Roman cuisine as salt in ours. Laser or silphium was a, now extinct, Roman spice or herb thought to be similar to asafoetida.

So next time you want to surprise your loved one with some truly exotic cookery just rustle up a couple of Glis glis and get stuffing.

Thony Christie is an independent historian of science who blogs at the Renaissance Mathematicus mostly about the mathematical sciences and mostly about the Early Modern Period.